December 11, 2017

Recommendation and Review: My Beautiful Idol by Pete Gall

Matthew 6:31 “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ 32 These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. 33 Seek the Kingdom of God* above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.

If those sound like some appropriate life verses for your journey, then you will like Pete Gall’s new book.

Before I talk about Pete Gall’s book, My Beautiful Idol, I want to say a couple of things about Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz.

Say what you want about Miller’s theology or connection to the emerging church, Blue Like Jazz was the most significant revival of the confessional memoir in Christian literature in a very, very long time.

And lots of people who read the book said, “Well I could write that.” (But not me, of course.)

In a bit of retrospect, Miller’s book was the emergence or reemergence of a genre that should have inspired many aspiring writers to consider finding their voice in a personal narrative.

But don’t miss something: Miller is a very good writer, and I think the book has many examples of what makes good writing, not just honest, vulnerable confessional writing.

Miller’s book is calm. It’s elegant, efficient, well-crafted. There’s an economy of expression and a restraint in rhetoric.

You know a lot about Donald Miller after reading Blue Like Jazz. But not too much. Just enough for the purpose of the book- an exploration of a particular kind of emerging spirituality- to stay with the reader.

Miller’s subsequent books are all more disciplined and better as writing, though they haven’t appealed to the commercial audience in the same way Blue like Jazz did. He hasn’t tried to write Blue Like Jazz II, even as books like To Own A Dragon have been thoroughly Miller-esque.

So what do we have with Pete Gall’s memoir, My Beautiful Idol?

First of all, the debt to Miller is obvious. Gall has clearly found his voice. Plenty of it. And that voice is distinctive, compelling and interesting.

In places, that voice is deeply moving and courageously insightful. Gall engages evangelicalism at a deeper, more personal, more emotional level than Miller. It’s much more of a wild ride through the circus, and has much more to say about what happens to the individual looking for Jesus along the way.

Gall’s method is to walk into a particular moment or conversation and explore it thoroughly. His narrative is a string of insightful, reflective moments. At times his prose is simply spell-binding.

Second, Gall is brutally honest. Frankly, when I saw four copies of this on the shelf at a Lifeway bookstore, I knew someone at Lifeway had not read the book. If my honesty and the honesty of the IM community has shaken your view of what evangelicals do, say and think when they aren’t on stage, then I’d advise you to only read this book with a companion or accountability partner nearby.

if Christian fiction were as honest as Pete Gall, someone might actually read it.

I love Gall’s honesty and his conscious commitment to it. Even when it made me wince or weep, I loved it. I hope Gall and other writers inspire millions of Christians to stop lying, controlling and pretending. When you read Gall and keep saying, “This guy needs help,” just remember that’s true of millions of us. Pete Gall says it beautifully: success in life is to admit that you need help. That makes a lot of people who are carping at some of you abject losers. Remember that please. (Me too.)

Third, Gall’s insights into evangelical culture and the evangelical soul are frequently brilliant. You may have to take a machete into portions of the book to get to some of the gems, but trust me- they are there and they’re wonderful. (Find the chapter on the “Temptation Icebreaker.”) Gall’s continual dialog with God and Christians about what it means to be a Jesus-follower is inspiring and reassuring. Even if you aren’t wrestling with the same questions in the same way, you will gain much by seeing what Pete Gall has seen on his climb up the mountain.

If evangelicals can write more of this kind of book, we might be able to overturn the lies and religious facism that dominate so much of our version of Christianity. We might actually start to have something of Jesus, St. Francis and Bonhoeffer about us instead of looking like angry control freaks full of ourselves and worshiping the Molech’s of power and consumerism.

All that being said, I have to point out some of the weaknesses of the book, being careful to say that none of these should discourage you from buying two copies.

1) Editor! Your phone is ringing! Or a more aggressive one who can eliminate at least 50 pages of material that wanders in the wilderness. I know it’s hard to kill a page, and I’m betting Gall dropped hundreds of pages along the way, but the book needs more editorial shaping for most readers to access it.
2) Ever tried to drink from a fire hydrant? That’s somewhat of the experience of reading (and I’ll wager, knowing) Pete Gall. For many readers, the book will be verbally and rhetorically overwhelming. It runs on 11, and would be a better book if it ran on 8.5. It’s Blue Like Jazz on 6 Red Bulls. I’m not surprised the Gall is constantly drinking Mountain Dew.
3) I would have appreciated more context up front, in the midst and at the end. It is clear at the end of the book that the memoir we’ve read isn’t where the author is now. Knowing more about where the author is now would have made it a better book along the whole ride. I know this felt like the best way to live the story, but I believe more orientation to how Gall’s written experiences have become part of his larger story would have made a better book. (But what do I know?)
4) Some of Gall’s insights and reflections are brilliant. Some are pretty obtuse, and so much a part of Gall’s own personality and journey that I was lost. It was worth all the “huhs?” to get to the “Wows.”
5) I would have appreciated the book more of Gall could locate his particular experiences of evangelicalism on the larger map of evangelicals as a whole or Christianity in total. There were segments of the book where I really needed to know where I was, especially during the discussion of speaking in tongues, some of his reflections on prayer and discussions of various church experiences.

Pete Gall has written an incredible personal reflection of his own journey. It will intersect with lots of younger readers of this website and throughout evangelicalism. I pray Pete Gall continues the honest and passionate quest recorded in this book and that he keeps sharing his story along the way.

(Yeah, someone gave me the book to review. What’s it to ya?)

Comments

  1. I have read through half of BLJ. I liked it so far. I agree with everything you say about BLJ above. It reminds me of Augustine’s “Confessions” for today. I will check out Gall’s book as well. It sounds interesting.

    As for your comment about Christian fiction being this honest. I would whole heartedly agree. A great modern honest/genuine Protestant Christian fiction writer of the likes like Dostoevsky or G.K. Chesterton does not really exist today. Unfortunately. Do you have any great modern fiction recommendations?

  2. >A great modern honest/genuine Protestant Christian fiction writer of the likes like Dostoevsky or G.K. Chesterton does not really exist today.

    I don’t know about that.

    Try Susan Howatch’s Anglican Church books.

  3. Vangelicmonk, check out Walker Percy’s novels sometimes. My favorite is Love in the Ruins.

  4. Haven’t read Gall, but it’s clear that Miller’s style is very akin to a generation of bloggers. I’ve found that the ‘unseen’ factor of Miller’s influence is evident in many of the Christian blogs I read. Perhaps one of the reasons why I enjoy reading (christian) blogs over books is for that reason — the personal touch.

  5. I’ve nearly worn out my copy of the original version (simply titled “Gall”). I’m interested to see what changes were made now that Zondervan is publishing it.

  6. I received two copies of Blue Like Jazz, for coaching soccer and hockey in a faith based league. The second copy I gave to a co-worker who is on a bit of a spiritual journey of his own and can probably relate to where Miller is coming from. An excellent book to give to those who have been turned off church.

  7. Darcie – I remember when “Gall” came out – – I guarantee you Zondervan made some language changes!

    I think Pete wrote this memoir before Blue Like Jazz was published, so I don’t think he owes a lot to Don Miller.

    Pete Gall’s own website has had some great follow-up material, including his parent’s perspective on the book.

  8. u2wesley says:

    I’ve read Blue Like Jazz and To Own A Dragon – loved both of them but had more of a personal connection to TOAJ because of its subject matter. I haven’t read Gall, but it sounds like something that would resonate with me as well. However, there’s fine line between writing confessionally and being self-indulgent.

    When I was in seminary Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer was all the rage, but, unfortunately, the launching pad for a lot of narcissistic “self exploration” from the pulpit. In June 2001 The Christian Century ran an article where The Wounded Healer was on a list of books whose impact, though unintended, had been harmful.

    In that article, Robin Louvin, then Dean of Perkins School of Theology at SMU, stated that too many clergy had seen TWH as “an invitation to make their own healing a primary agenda of their ministry,” with the result being a “blurring of the boundary between the personal and the professional,” as well as “a confusion between readiness for healing and readiness to be a healer.”

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed reading Miller and based on what I’ve read here it sounds like Gall will be worth the time as well.

    I’m just not sure how many Evangelicals know the difference between being confessional and being self-indulgent.

  9. Okay, you got me. I ordered it today:>)

  10. Michael,

    Long time reader, first time writer…I’m curious as to what insights and reflections you found obtuse in “My Beautiful Idol”?

    Personally, I found most of his conclusions fall into the “things we think but never say” category. It is a moving and honest book, I’ve never quite read anything like this from a Christian writer.

    Thanks for the book reviews/recommendations, if not for your site I wouldn’t come across works like these.

    Rich